Politics & Policy

For Statistician, a New York Times Troll

Why Nate Silver’s Krugman smackdown is funnier and more serious than it looks.

Nate Silver’s response after former workmate and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman published four bad reviews of Silver’s new site shows how weak straw men and other tropes of the old media are against objective evidence.

FiveThirtyEight is a new media venture from Krugman’s former colleague, who recently predicted the Republican party would reclaim the U.S. Senate this fall.

Coming from Silver, a former New York Times blogger and statistics expert who became a beloved figure in mainstream media merely by predicting President Obama’s reelection, this prophecy seemed to the Left like a betrayal. Silver’s hiring of people skeptical of the left-wing establishment’s views on various issues has also provoked fury, and FiveThirtyEight has come in for attacks from elsewhere. The Democratic National Committee, for example, made mild fun of its 2012 golden boy in a fundraising pitch last week.

The aging Krugman’s retaliation was more determined. The first in a string of negative blog posts was published March 18, and even by Krugman’s standards, the attacks have been cheap. In one post the Times economist complained that an article showing how estimates of corporate cash holdings (which Krugman himself seems to have been happily citing for years) were inflated by more than half a trillion dollars is only “kind of interesting.” In another he lamented that Silver should be more like another blogger who is publishing favorable reports on Obamacare enrollments. And several times he has attacked Silver for being insufficiently reverent toward “experts.”

But Silver didn’t respond until March 24, when he was interviewed by Talking Points Memo and followed up with a few tweets.

Silver took to his blog Wednesday for a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the 33 career mentions Paul Krugman has given to him and his blog. Silver’s headline aped that of a Times column, reading “For Columnist, a Change of Tone.”

FiveThirtyEight classified Krugman’s references as either favorable, unfavorable, or neutral. Nineteen references were favorable, eight were neutral, and and only six were unfavorable — with four unfavorable mentions in the nine days since he started the independent news site.

Silver notes that Krugman’s attitude toward FiveThirtyEight changed most dramatically after the blog launched under “auspices of ESPN.”

“While it can be easy to extrapolate a spurious trend from a limited number of data points, the differences are highly statistically significant. At his current pace, Mr. Krugman will write 425 more blog posts about FiveThirtyEight between now and the 2016 presidential election,” wrote Silver.

The Daily Show featured Silver Thursday night for what is turning into a PR campaign for FiveThirtyEight.

“We respond to serious criticism the only way we can, which is to put out a better product,” Silver told Jon Stewart. “If there’s criticism we find a little more frivolous, we might respond with humor, ignore it, or with snark.”

A recent article about climate change received “85 percent negative feedback,” according to Silver, and the site is commissioning a response.

“The central thesis of the piece was that although these costs [of natural disasters] are increasing, the rise can be accounted for by the growing wealth of the global population, rather than by a rise in the number of disaster events due to climate change.”

— Joshua Encinias is an Agostinelli Fellow at National Review Online.

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